Today’s post is part of a special series here on Planet Pailly called Molecular Mondays. On the first Monday of the month, we take a closer look at the atoms and molecules that make up our physical universe, both in reality and in science fiction. Today, we’re talking about:
It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a superatom!
Okay, Superman isn’t the right reference to make for this post. I should probably make a reference to the Power Rangers, or perhaps Captain Planet. “When your powers combine, I am Superatom!”
Superatoms vs. Molecules
Atoms combining together is nothing new. That’s called a molecule. You could say that a superatom is basically just a molecule that acts like a giant atom.
In normal molecules, each atom gets to hold on to its own electron cloud, more or less. Yes, the atoms do share electrons. Yes, some molecular structures allow electrons to travel freely between atoms. Yes, sometimes an atom ends up losing an electron and never gets it back.
But for the most part, each atom still has its own unique electron cloud or electron shell structure around it, and therefore each atom still retains its own distinct chemical identity on the periodic table of elements.
In a superatom, something wildly different happens. An entirely new electron cloud forms, not around any individual atoms but around the molecule as a whole. This supercloud even has layers or shells, and it can form chemical bonds, just like the electron cloud around an ordinary atom would.
So Much for the Periodic Table
Because superatoms have their own electron clouds and can form chemical bonds with other atoms—or other superatoms—we can use them to create new molecules: molecules that would not be possible using just the hundred-plus elements on the periodic table.
So if you’re a chemist or an engineer (or a science fiction writer) and you can’t find the chemical element you need on the periodic table, you now have more options. You might be able to find (or invent) a super-element to do the job instead.
P.S.: I wonder if Star Trek’s dilithium might be a super-element that incorporates two lithium atoms.